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6 January 2022

Moving Beyond ‘Problem-Solution’ Logics in Military Decision-Making

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Original blog can be found here: https://benzweibelson.medium.com/moving-beyond-problem-solution-logics-in-military-decision-making-7ca496acb26c

This is an excerpt from a design monograph that addresses design, NATO operational planning and Joint planning methodologies (NATO-OPP, JPP, and various service-specific deviations therein). This monograph is pending publication and was produced through the Joint Special Operations University where the author is a design educator (contractor) for the U.S. Special Operations Command. The title of the monograph is: Disrupting Modern Military Decision-Making: Deconstructing Institutionalized Rituals through Design Synthesis.”

odern military decision-making, to include how NATO and Joint Forces approach complex warfare activities with NATO-OPP, JPP and other associated decision-making practices focuses exclusively on a ‘problem-solution’ relationship that is systematic (cause-effect, input-output). Systematic logic works best with closed, simple systems where there is one best or only solution. Simple systems include things like rifles where only a 5.56mm round can be loaded into the M4 rifle and loaded only in the proper manner inside the magazine. The rifle can only fire when mechanically operated, and once fired the bullet cannot be returned into its earlier form. Many forms of military decision-making require closed-system, systematic thinking in simple contexts because best practices occur where clear causes lead to established and reliable effects. Standard operating procedures, checklists, tactical sequences, and rote memorization of drills and exercises all function remarkably well in warfare with military knowledge curation secured through doctrine, repetition, uniformity, risk reduction activities and standardization.

Yet simple systems are the lowest form of system variation in complex reality, and complicated systems require humans to frame ‘problems’ in more than a ‘optimized solution to clear, closed-loop problem identified’ as available in simple system contexts. Complicated systems do not feature a single ‘best solution’ and often multiple, dissimilar solutions exist for what is conceived as a problem. Further, the clear optimization available in simple systems is absent, where in complicated systems often only a slew of ‘good enough’ solutions are available for application and perpetually some may perform better or worse than others in an ever-changing, emergent context of complicated system behavior.

It is in complicated systems where militaries still apply ‘problem-solution’ patterns for decision-making, but modern military decision-making adds concepts such as ‘course of action development, comparison, and selection’ to acknowledge that complicated system challenges feature a wider range of possible decisions with a range of outcomes. Complicated systems feature patterns of causes leading to effects where repeatedly, many rules, maxims and principles can be developed to produce some sort of order and prediction where chance still plays a role that did not exist in simple system contexts. Military theorists such as Jomini would popularize ‘rules of warfare’ that capitalize on conflict unfolding in complicated systems, such as pitched battles with ground forces where both sides generally agree on a code of conduct and behavior as well as shared values on what and how warfare is and is not.

There are two other important types of systems in complexity theory. A complex system does not feature a clear ‘cause-effect’ relationship in that they are interwoven and impossible to distinguish (the origin of the word ‘complex’ means woven). Complex systems reject linear causality logic, and systematic thinking will fail when applied to complexity. Complex systems reject the artificial concept of chronological time where one attempts to “create conditions for a standardization of time whereby events and processes are placed in a patterned chronological order…chronological time is superimposed over the subjective time of individuals so that synchronized carrying out of organizational tasks is [thought] possible.”[1]

Complex systems resist this effort in predictability; partly this is due to the irrational, non-programmable and infinitely dynamic human nature which is always present in complex systems. There are no ‘best practices’ and the reliability and uniformity of ‘good enough’ practices found in complicated systems also lose relevance in complex, dynamic systems. ‘Problem-solution’ is no longer reliable because of how complex systems feature nonlinearity and emergence (explained in the next section). While rules “are generalizations connecting types of behavior by types of actors to types of situations”,[2] complex systems deny these linkages because any possible relationship is fluid, in flux, or emerging into a new variation that breaks from any earlier ‘rule formation’ effort. Chaotic systems are those that have no correlation between cause and effect, and the only possible practice is that of novelty; a chaotic system will reject every possible expected ‘solution’ because the state of a chaotic system is entirely unlike any historical context where any past solution would correspond to the novelty.[3] The four primary types of systems (simple, complicated, complex, chaotic) as understood by complexity theory and systems theory are significant for how NATO and Joint Forces might change how they perform complex decision-making in the wide range of security and defense activities.

First, militaries should consider the overdependency of NATO-OPP and JPP on analytical optimization toward ‘problem-solution’ reasoning that only functions effectively in simple and complicated systems. Technical and tactical applications do require these approaches, but NATO and Joint Forces (or Coalitions of Allied Forces) are tasked to consider for their nations and societies at a dynamic, changing, complex (if not chaotic at times) level for warfare and defense activities. To change this and reform decision-making methods to move beyond ‘problem-solution’ linear causality, the ideas of Russell Ackoff on different types of problem formation by humans is offered to highlight core distinctions. Ackoff was a pioneer complexity theorist and while his concepts influenced many disciplines and fields from the 1950s onward, the military community of practice has traditionally held to the ‘Newtonian stylings’ of physical domain-centric rationalization concerning warfare established centuries before complexity theory was even realized. Contemporary military doctrine relies not upon the likes of Ackoff but that of Jomini, Clausewitz, and Taylor for theoretical, managerial, and philosophical framings on war.

Concerning Ackoff, these four types of problem-setting will be used in conjunction with subsequent sections in this monograph so that modern military forces might apply a different decision-making methodology toward complex security contexts. In Ackoff’s “On the Use of Models in Corporate Planning” he presents four different ways that humans (and organizations therefore) frame ‘problems’ in reality.[4] While Ackoff addresses industry and commercial organizations in his discussion, these concepts extend into all security organizations as well as how agencies, governments, and state-enabled instruments of power from the local to national level also consider “problems”. Ackoff discusses ‘problem solution’ which is again the most popular concept for nearly all military affairs, but Ackoff also presents ‘problem resolution’ as another form of problem realization. Most organizations do some combination of both solution and resolution and is expressed in policy, decision-making methodology, doctrine, or standard practices as well as ‘on-the-ground’ applications.

Problem solution is “to select a course of action that is believed to yield the best possible outcome, one that optimizes.”[5] Ackoff pairs this with a ‘research approach’ in that the problem-solution framework best matches a scientific methodology and suits the terminology, tools, and techniques of the scientific approach to interpreting reality. In military applications, ‘problem-solution’ ideation pairs this reasoning with ‘systematic’ logic where organizations seek a causal and clearly defined ‘input to output’ relationship which supports this ‘problem and solution’ construct.[6] A majority of organizational management structure, policy, formal military doctrine, and best practices attempt to infuse scientific concepts and mathematical terminology so that a quantifiable and largely objective process is constructed for the organization to go about identifying problems, associating a proposed solution to them, and implementing said solution so that a measurable success or failure can be observed and subsequently repeated.[7] The modern military force applies ‘problem solution’ in most activities within the decision-making methodology again by centralizing ‘ends-ways-means’ and a reverse-engineering logic to systematically link desired outputs with predetermined inputs.

Ackoff differentiates ‘problem solution’ with that of ‘problem resolution.’ Problem resolution is: “to resolve a problem is to select a course of action that yields an outcome that is good enough, one that satisfices.”[8] Ackoff calls this the clinical approach because it relies extensively upon past experiences and a clinical construct of experimental trial and errors that build into a long-term, cohesive knowledge base where clinicians might return to for working resolutions when encountering seemingly similar problem sets. The types of problems that are resolve-able are problems within complicated or possibly some forms of complex systems (temporarily and rarely repeating). There are no single or optimal solutions available to the types of problems that can only be resolved, and these types of problems are often defined as “messy, complicated, complex, confusing, difficult, wicked” and so-forth.[9] Some of the NATO and Joint Force analytical methodology appears to apply ‘problem resolution’, particularly when coordinating with competing interests, risk mitigation efforts, policy concerns as well as multiple stakeholder demands. In practice, land forces that are often closer to populations promote ‘problem resolution’ constructs in military doctrine, while aviation, naval, and other military entities or forces that experience a greater distance from direct human population engagement during wartime activities continue to emphasize ‘problem-solution’ conceptualization.

‘Problem absolution’ is a third form that humans apply in how they attempt to define ‘problem’ and approach them. To absolve a problem is to realize one is there and then purposefully ignore it. Essentially, “the best way to do this is to do nothing, or as little as one can get away with.”[10] The act of ignoring the problem is an attempt to permit sufficient time and space to make the problem resolve itself, fade away, or otherwise become something unworthy or undesirable to invest energy and attention toward. This is a risky and often flawed strategy according to Ackoff, yet there are countless examples of individuals, organizations, and even nations or societies ignoring particular problems in the hopes that they “go away” or sometimes because even addressing the problem would require an enormous amount of energy and resources.

When an intelligence analyst determines that one target request out of a series of potential others is the one they select as the best linkage to an enemy’s assessed critical vulnerability of some adversarial ‘center of gravity’, they in turn demonstrate problem absolution by not acting upon the others. This is not to be considered pejorative; rather any military organization that considers a range of possible actions toward multiple challenges and selects action upon one over the others is indirectly absolving itself of the other realized problems, even if only temporarily if the intent is to later act upon other problems. Problem absolution does not fit in well into most decision-making methodologies for militaries because of cultural and social beliefs about various military values, as well as identity and self-interests. One rarely acknowledges intent to ignore what is understood as a problem, but the military has a clear (often unsightly) history of this activity.

Some public health issues at various times might constitute an example of this ‘problem absolution’, as will any significant and negative public image issues that individuals (celebrities, public figures) might be struggling with, or when a company gets negative attention for something it is responsible or even largely not responsible for. Simply waiting until the news cycle changes or enough people forget or ignore the “problem” is one way that some problems indeed are addressed. American as well as affluent western societies writ large tend to tolerate a certain glamorization of illegal drug use in entertainment, by noted athletes and celebrities, yet the clear damage of how those drugs reach those consumers is absolved by the population that embraces said substance abuse as ‘part of the lifestyle.’ In military applications, when an organization gradually lowers security measures or ignores creating ‘patterns of life’ that an adversary might exploit, problem absolution occurs. The long-term denial of the health hazards of military decisions to use ‘Agent Orange’ deforestation chemicals in Vietnam, or the tolerance of sexually inappropriate behaviors in certain services (the Tail Hook Convention), or the creeping acceptance of Afghan political and security force corruption from 2003–2021 all illustrate problem absolution. Adding in regular election cycles and a revolving door of political leaders, security organizations often can ‘wait out the clock’ through problem absolution in order to delay activities until anticipated leadership changes occur.[11]

Ackoff termed a fourth form of dealing with problems as ‘problem dissolution.’ This last way of dealing with ‘problems’ is most significant for strategic design and often least understood outside of complexity and systems theory. “Dissolution involves idealization rather than satisficing or optimization (or ignoring), because its objective is to so change the system or its environment as to bring the system closer to an ultimately desirable state, one in which the problem cannot or does not arise.”[12] This is what Ackoff terms the design approach. Problem dissolution is often a superior way to consider and deal with problems in complex and chaotic system settings. Dissolution means that one designs a way to transform the system so that in the emergent, new system what was previously seen as a problem is dissolved and no longer a major concern. Yet the new system formation itself will generate new problems as well. Ackoff explains this distinction between a dissolution of a problem and linear solution of a problem:

The designer makes use of the methods, techniques, and tools of both the clinician and the researcher, but he uses them synthetically rather than analytically. He tries to change the way the system as a whole functions within the larger system that contains it rather than the way its parts function within it. Dissolutions are found in the containing whole; solutions are found in the contained parts. [13]

A commercial example of problem dissolution can be found in how social ride-sharing platforms developed with the arrival of the smart phone and sufficient technological distribution across a population. Taxi companies have always dealt with the problem of fleet maintenance, whether in the age of automobiles where transmissions must be replaced periodically, or back in horse carriage times when exhausted horses needed to be rested or replaced with fresh ones. The taxi industry perpetually must manage a fleet and the constant occurrence of routine as well as unexpected repair requirements or damage is unending. They must attempt to solve particular maintenance problems, resolve others, and in some cases, they also absolve those that may later cause other problems or simply fade away. When a taxi driver’s vehicle breaks down, the company loses that line of profit until the vehicle is back up and operational. Yet for ride-sharing services such as Uber, when a driver’s vehicle breaks down, that driver no longer works for Uber until they fix it themselves. Uber has dissolved the fleet maintenance problem by designing a different system for providing the same sort of transportation service that traditional taxi companies offer.

A military example of problem dissolution can be found in most any transformative war technology such as the development of aircraft carriers. Once airplanes could be shown to safely and reliably land on floating runways, extending their naval range, and introducing a new lethal way to inflict destruction from the sky with precision and increased scale, the navy had dissolved an earlier systemic problem where surface and subsurface vessels needed to maneuver within water in order to attempt to damage or destroy an adversary. Battleships had grown increasingly larger with a never-ending arms race between ships and shore batteries on gun range, rate of fire, and projectile lethality. The design of the aircraft carrier dissolved much of those legacy issues while introducing entirely novel problems in the new ‘aircraft-centric naval warfare system’ that would mature in the Second World War.

Aircraft carriers themselves were vulnerable to other aircraft, and an entire emergent domain of aerial combat would create vastly different (and more complex) warfare challenges for naval decision-makers than their predecessors dealt with. Lastly, problem dissolution does not ‘solve problems’ in that the earlier ‘problems’ still remain for those that extend legacy practices. Taxi companies today still maintain fleets while competing against ride-share platforms, and submarines and surface vessels conduct naval activities that originated in the pre-aircraft carrier era. They do those activities today while immersed in the increasingly complex post-aircraft carrier world where aviation and other emerging technological developments promote further ‘problems’ to emerge. Emergence thus is a critical element of how one conceptualizes what problems actually are and are the next area for modern security forces to consider deeply.

This excerpt is part of a larger monograph pending publication in 2022.

For more, follow Ben Zweibelson, subscribe to ‘Think JSOU’ on YouTube, consider JSOU courses, research and educational outreach by visiting https://www.jsou.us , and also connect with Ben on LinkedIn to learn more about this monograph and the planned publication in 2022.

[1] Tsoukas, “What Is Organizational Foresight and How Can It Be Developed?,” 265.

[2] Tsoukas and Hatch, “Complex Thinking, Complex Practice: The Case for a Narrative Approach to Organizational Complexity,” 993.s

[3] Snowden, “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making”; David Snowden, “The Cynefin Framework,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7oz366X0-8; Bousquet, “Chaoplexic Warfare or the Future of Military Organization”; Holland, “Complex Adaptive Systems.”

[4] Ackoff, “On the Use of Models in Corporate Planning.”

[5] Ackoff.

[6] Paparone, “How We Fight: A Critical Exploration of US Military Doctrine.”

[7] Gioia and Pitre, “Multiparadigm Perspectives on Theory Building,” 585–87.

[8] Ackoff, “On the Use of Models in Corporate Planning.”

[9] Buchanan, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”; Conklin, “Wicked Problems and Social Complexity”; Rittel and Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”; Tsoukas and Hatch, “Complex Thinking, Complex Practice: The Case for a Narrative Approach to Organizational Complexity.”

[10] Ackoff, “Why Few Organizations Adopt Systems Thinking,” 706.

[11] Interestingly, while this is a regular and publicly reported phenomenon of all modern security organizations and their political leadership, it is unstated in any formal strategic or organizational doctrine. This in itself is a form of ‘problem absolution’ for military doctrine producers as the institution readily applies the concept but articulating or even acknowledging it would create massive internal conflicts. At best, NATO-OPP and JPP merely imply problem absolution if considered through historical record and public statements by those deciding and acting upon NATO-OPP and JPP applications.

[12] Ackoff, “On the Use of Models in Corporate Planning,” 355.

[13] Ackoff, 355.

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